Raining on the Parade: The Failure to Support New Potential Clergy

Ed note: It’s been a while since I have written here, partially because I have moved my Nashville social commentary to http://justnashville.wordpress.com, but partially because I really haven’t had much to say. I am hoping that recent changes in my schedule will allow for more commentary here on faith and life in in the United Methodist Church.

The other day I had the chance to talk to a person who is pursuing ordination in the United Methodist Church. This person has completed theological school and is competent in his understanding of the scriptures and ready to take on ministry in a local church.  He/She is in the process, working to complete all the requirements necessary for first commissioning, and then ordination. She/He feels called by God, which has been affirmed in his/her ministry in the local church, and has potential as a leader.

However, when this person went to the pastor of his local congregation seeking a meeting with the SPRC and the Charge Conference for approval, he began to get a runaround. “Oh, it’s really hard to get those groups together,” he was told. “Assembling a Charge Conference isn’t easy — you probably need to wait until the fall when we have our regular conference…” the Sr. Pastor went on. The person seeking ministry went on to say that at no time had the Sr. Pastor of the congregation treated her/his desire to seek ordination as anything beyond an inconvenience to his ministry. There was no discussion of gifts and graces, and no expression of feeling one way or the other about the desire of his member to seek ordination. The only thing expressed was how much “trouble” it would be to convene a Charge Conference.

For the record, let’s say right up front that calling a Charge Conference is no big deal. It simply involves checking in the with D.S. to get authority, with the D.S. either authorizing the pastor-in-charge or another local elder to preside, AND giving two weeks notice of the meeting and purpose in worship and in normal communications channels. I’ve had to call several related to compensation issues in the past, and it took about 15 minutes of my time. It’s really doesn’t require much effort.

Of course, I recognize that I am hearing one side of the story, and that these situations are always much more complicated than appears on the surface. And yet, I have a sneaking suspicion based on the stories of others that these types of impediments to seeking ordination are more normal than not.

Of course, much has been written about the convoluted nature of our current ordination process, including the length of the process robbing potential candidates of the energy and passion that led them to seek ordination in the first place.  It’s a difficult thing to balance, for we want to ensure that we ordain persons of competence and character and those traits aren’t determined quickly. On the other hand, we also need passionate proclaimers of the gospel, and there are parts of our process that can strip the passion out of the most emotional soul.

But what concerns me more is the lack of support at the local church level which fails to adequately move potential candidates into the process. There was a time in our history when one of the criteria pastors were judged on was the number of persons they had mentored into ministry, a leadership development metric that recognized that part of the pastoral role was developing new leaders for the church. For some unknown reason that seems to be no longer the case, and as a result dealing with issues of potential ministry partners can often be seen by local pastors as a complication to an already busy schedule. Yes, we give lip service to welcoming new clergy, but when our schedules are inconvenienced by the requirements of moving these persons on, sometimes we can be less than helpful.

Luckily for us, the passion of most candidates keeps them moving forward even when they meet resistance. The person I mentioned above isn’t giving up, and after talking with me is pushing more assertively for a called Charge Conference to be held next month. When the call of God is strong and fresh, these barriers are not insurmountable.

But what would it mean to our ministry as a denomination if rather than placing roadblocks and hoops to jump through, we embraced and celebrated the call of these new brothers and sisters? What would it mean to the vibrancy of our church if their energy and passion could be harnessed for the good of the Gospel rather than tested and wrung through the ringer? What would it mean to us for existing clergy to understand supporting and developing new leaders as less of an administrative burden and more as an opportunity for God’s kingdom reality to be revealed?

What are some of the impediments you see that dampen and discourage some to seek ordination in the United Methodist Church?

11 thoughts on “Raining on the Parade: The Failure to Support New Potential Clergy

  1. Jay,

    I agree absolutely that the local church needs to take its responsibility to nurture ministry candidates more seriously, but I’m confused a bit by the process described in your post.

    Has this person discerned a call to ministry and gone to seminary and completed it before having any conversations with his or her local pastor? That strikes me as an odd way to go about things – and indeed the reverse of the process as described in the Book of Discipline.

    I’m just curious how someone could get so far down the road without having a talk with the pastor of his or her church. It is the local church that is supposed to be the first organization to discern the gifts and graces. You can’t be a candidate for ordination without charge conference action. Some seminaries require District Superintendents to submit letters confirming candidacy as part of enrollment.

    The Discipline lays out a process of local church meetings and discernment with a mentor as the first steps. It sounds like this person is coming to the local church saying, I’m all ready for approval, can we meet next month.

    Maybe I’m reading the post incorrectly. I certainly do not want to absolve the local church of being a problem here.

  2. John, very good questions indeed, and if the process didn’t involve messy human decisions along the way, the process should work as described. The problem is that often folks enter theological education as a means of discerning a calling rather than as a means of preparation for that calling (formational reasons rather than acquiring job skills). For most of this person’s tenure in theology school, there was an orientation toward further graduate studies, but on completion of his/her program, after participation in a local church here (upon which their spouse is on staff) this person more clearly discerned a call to ministry as an ordained person. While this person didn’t grow up (so to speak) in their current congregation, this place is now their theological and spiritual home, and is the place from which they will be ordained.

    Again, I agree with you, but the conversations with the local pastor (at some level) and the mentor have happened. It’s at the next step of facilitating the meetings with the SPRC and as importantly the Charge Conference, that the breakdown is occurring.

    As for some seminaries requiring confirmation of candidacy by a DS, I’ve never heard of such. Frankly (at least here in the South) the main criteria for entry is one’s ability to pay the tuition. Seminaries and theological schools are very willing to take folks money whether they have discerned a calling or not.

    Yes, the Discipline lays out a process . . . but it’s only effective when pastors are knowledgeable of the Disciplinary process (something that I am finding is a rare commodity) and more importantly invested in how the process leads folks under our charge toward full time, vocational service to the church. My concern from what I hear down here, is that far too many of my colleagues are far from knowledgeable and uninvested, unconcerned, and not especially helpful.

    1. “often folks enter theological education as a means of discerning a calling rather than as a means of preparation for that calling (formational reasons rather than acquiring job skills).” While that is a noble goal, discerning your calling is not the primary focus of seminary education, although it should most likely be an important component. The candidacy process, however, IS designed to help you discern your calling. When I worked at GBHEM, we constantly tried to get the message out that you don’t have to be SURE of your calling to ordained ministry to begin the candidacy process. In fact, if you wait until you are absolutely sure of that call to begin the process, you will already be behind.

  3. That is quite unfortunate. Local churches should be in the pastor making business.

    I did not mean to criticize your colleague. I was just confused by the process. When I started, I had a whole host of meetings and conversations – including a whole mentoring process with an elder who had been trained for that purpose. If I’d known I could just go get the degree and then wrestle with the process, I might have taken a much different path than I have.

    As for seminary, the two cases I am thinking of might have been more about scholarship and financial aid money than getting in the door. Nonetheless, when I was applying, I needed letters from the DS certifying that I was a candidate.

  4. As a pastor who is almost done with the ordination process, I would have a hard time advising someone to seek ordination in the UMC (or at the very least, in this conference) in good conscience, because of the very soul killing nature of our bloated bureaucracy. I would instead encourage someone discerning their calling to pursue a venue where they are honored for their unique gifts and graces rather than forced to fit into a predetermined mold.

  5. Wow!
    I am considering licensing school and this conversation makes me take a step back and wonder if it is worth it? I’m a pragmatist and have no delusion of making me think it is spiritually rewarding…just a prerequisite to being all I can be for my congregation. I want to be able to baptize and marry church members. Nothing more, nothing less. But I must be licensed to do so.
    I am lay supply at present, but wondering about being a licensed local pastor. I would ask…is it worth it? Does one have to compromise on their calling by the Holy Spirit to be a pastor in the UMC? Yep, strange question…but relevant to me in my walk. Whaddya think?

  6. Marty,

    I am a licensed local pastor and my soul is still in tact – as far as I know.

    It is so hard to judge based on what people are saying and second hand accounts, but my experience is that the process is long and difficult. It does include some pointless obstacles and can lead to abuses. It is a human institution.

    If we preach about cross bearing, we should not shrink back when we face trials and difficulties.

  7. This was an issue I saw a handful of times in my seminary experience as relates to the UMC – people enroll with the hopes of graduating and entering into ministry with ZERO understanding of the process. One poor guy had been active in a UM congregation for 8 plus years, but had never entered professing membership – didn’t even know he wasn’t a member. Not sure what happened to him.

    Of course, the problem is far from being with the individuals, but the system can be utterly crazy. For every individual who got into seminary without a clue about the process I could share two or three stories about people getting the run around by the ordination process. Maybe some of these things have improved in the last 10 years since I graduated, but I have my doubts. Another guy I know transferred his membership to another local church which reset the clock on his being able to get the necessary minimum time (2 years I think) of being a professing member in a local church before being able to enter candidacy. How ridiculous! He’d been a professing member for years. Another guy decided he wanted to change from being PC(USA) to UM while in seminary, and there was simply no good mechanism for helping make that a smooth transition.

  8. Hey, don’t forget the patchwork of rules that change from Annual Conference to Annual Conference. I can’t remember how many folks returned to the conference from seminary only to learn that an additional educational requirement had been added and that they would have to take an additional class or two from the local Divinity School or online at their own expense. Those requirements are not uniform across the church, and far too many folks find themselves at the mercies of the whims of a particular Board of Ordained Ministry.

    BTW Larry, luckily the last General Conference reduced the residency requirement to a year.

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